The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the flagship of higher education in Israel and among the world leading academic institutions, has been recently targeted by groups affiliated with the Palestinian campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). The BDS movement campaigns against academic ties with the Israeli academic institutions. The BDS movement has compiled for each Israeli university a specific ‘portfolio’, which provides specific reasons against collaboration with each different university. These specific reasons are mere pretexts for advancement of the general policy of the BDS movement, which is to isolate Israeli academia from the rest of the academic world, under the dubious theory that such a move is morally just and that it would contribute to a change in the Israeli government policy regarding the Palestinians.

In what follows we demonstrate that the allegations raised to justify boycotting the members of the Hebrew University community are false. Rather than severing ties with Israeli academia, regardless of each student or faculty member’s views or potential contributions to science, what is needed is greater engagement of intellectuals from around the world with Israelis and Palestinians, a goal that can be achieved by strengthening academic cooperation with the Hebrew University and similar institutions.

1. The Hebrew University is an Independent Research Institution

Israeli academia in general and the Hebrew University in particular are independent of direct government interference and operate autonomously in all academic matters, from admission policy to pedagogical decisions. Researchers make their own decisions what to study and how to do so—and they excel in their work, earning the Hebrew University an internationally acclaimed status as a leading global university. The university fosters free research and discourse, and scholars and students are often harshly critical of governmental policies. The administration has not hesitated to confront the government time and time again (for example, see here).

Israel’s thriving democracy is characterized by a vibrant liberal camp that plays a crucial role in checking the government’s actions. As in other liberal democracies, studies produced by scholars at the university continuously criticize government policy, propose policy changes, expose injustices of various kinds, and excavate unofficial histories. In the constitutional crisis that preceded the war, faculty and students successfully protested against the government’s plan for judicial overhaul. For much of 2023 there hadn’t been a week without a Hebrew University faculty speaking publicly and critically against the proposed plans. Our scholars are also weighing on the current moment academically and publicly, addressing and analyzing all challenges relating to the war.

Weakening Israeli academia, as the boycott movement seeks to do, would only undermine this liberal and critical voice and weaken the democratic fabric of Israeli society.

2. Promoting Equality and Excellence in a Diverse Society

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is actively and extensively engaged in projects aiming to promote equality between Jews and Arab-Palestinians. About 16% of the University’s 24,000 students are Arabs, about half of them Palestinians from East Jerusalem. This reality is the result of extensive efforts and reflect an institutional commitment to equality, given that higher education is a vehicle for social mobility.

These efforts include providing the East Jerusalemites with a comprehensive, one-year, free of charge preparatory program by the University, in which they acquire proficiency in the Hebrew and English languages, as well as knowledge in science and social studies. The goal of the program, which attracts almost 500 students each year, is to provide these students with opportunities for growth and development that otherwise may not have been available to them.

Another example is the Law School’s special orientation program for Arabic-speaking students. In this free of charge summer program, the students receive small group exposure to all subjects taught during the first year of law school, meet their professors in an intimate and open forum, and receive extensive tutorship that prepares them for studying a language-heavy subject in a language that is not their mother tongue. Tutorship and mentorship continue throughout law school.

These are just a few examples of the programs we operate. We also have an extensive program of financial aid and fellowships for Arab students in all degree levels, including programs specifically encouraging and supporting promising candidates in advanced degree and post-doctoral programs.

3. Nurturing Dialogue in a Multi-Cultural Campus

The Hebrew University works hard to nurture a multi-cultural campus. The University takes seriously its responsibility to do so given that the period of study at the Hebrew University is sometimes the first opportunity for meaningful positive interaction between Jews and Arabs. It requires not only recruiting diverse faculty members and students, which we do, but also creating a welcoming atmosphere and creating meaningful learning opportunities across campus. One of our cornerstone academic programs is Multiversita, which offers a rich array of classes bringing together faculty and students of various religious and national backgrounds to uncover the challenges of living together in a multicultural environment and find sustainable solutions.

The challenge of achieving constructive dialogue among differing perspectives is especially hard in times of war and national conflict, as the one that we are currently facing. The Hebrew University addresses this challenge by employing three main policies:

  • First, our Unit for Diversity and Inclusion, headed by Vice President Professor Mona Khoury, initiates numerous activities to ensure that all students feel welcome in our campus, and create opportunities for positive engagement and academic success to students from all groups.
  • Second, the Hebrew University provides extensive protection of academic freedom and freedom of speech of faculty and students. The university allows community members to hold political demonstrations inside the campus, and express their views freely.
  • Lastly, the administration of the university takes seriously its role as educators and moral leaders, and thus, while avoiding limiting speech, it does offer our community their position regarding the appalling nature of hate speech, incitement to racism or to terror. It is this delicate balance, between protecting free speech and responding to expressions of hatred with counter-speech, which is the heart of our success in protecting this stronghold of liberalism in Jerusalem.

4. Academic Programs for Soldiers and Police Officers

The Hebrew University operates several academic programs in cooperation with the IDF and Israel Police. These programs are purely academic. The soldiers and police officers (themselves a diverse cohort composed of Jews and Arabs) take regular degree courses along with other Jewish and Palestinian students in the humanities, social sciences, and exact sciences. These programs substantially contribute to the education of these soldiers and police officers, providing a strong basis in the protection of human rights, ethics, morality and the fundamental structures of liberal democracy.

5. Land

The specific allegations concerning the legal status of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus campus are based on a gross simplification and deliberate misrepresentation of the factually and legally complex history of Jerusalem in order to create the impression that the Hebrew University is complicit in a violation of international law, which is absolutely not the case.

First and foremost, there is no question whatsoever that the historic Mount Scopus campus, in which all the campus’s academic activities are held, was established in 1925—more than two decades before the founding of the State of Israel—and remained as an enclave controlled by Israel between 1948-1967. The international community recognizes the Mt. Scopus campus as part of Israel and as not as part of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. International dignitaries and diplomats, including the EU ambassador, and members of international organizations, regularly visit the campus, participate in its activities and co-sponsor events held in it. The European Research Council, which does not allow its grants to fund activities in the Occupied Territories, also regularly funds research activities undertaken on the Mount Scopus campus.

The BDS movement, in its publications relating to Mount Scopus, alludes to the fact that two student facilities serving the campus, a dormitory and a sports center, are in East Jerusalem, in areas which the international community largely views as part of the Occupied Territories. However, there is nothing unlawful or unethical about the situation on the ground, nor is there any relationship between the facilities in question and academic activities on campus. The Hebrew University has owned private land in East Jerusalem before 1948 and thus maintains continuous private property rights in East Jerusalem, regardless of the area’s sovereignty status. Furthermore, the facilities in question are used by all Hebrew University students, including Israeli, Palestinian and foreign students. Under every legal framework that may apply to these lands, the activities of the Hebrew University are lawful. This is certainly true under international law, including the law of belligerent occupation, which does not prohibit in any way the use of private land for such public purposes. The University is not at fault for using for good purposes its long-standing property rights in ways which are lawful and non-discriminatory.

6. The Effects of the Hamas-Israel War on the Hebrew University

On October 7, 2023, Hamas terrorists invaded Israel under the guise of thousands of rockets fired into Israeli towns and cities, massacred over 1,200 Israelis and foreign civilians, incinerated families in their homes, tortured children in front of their parents and parents in front of their children, and brutally raped and mutilated women young and old. Hamas kidnapped more than 240 people, among them toddlers, children, young men and women, and elderly men and women over 80 years old. Two members of the Hebrew University community, Carmel Gat and Sagui Dekel-Chen, were kidnapped from their homes that day and are still held captive, with more than 130 innocent hostages that are still held in Hamas’ captivity, suffering torture and rape and abuse.

In the days, weeks and months since October 7th, Hamas has fired more than 10,000 rockets from Gaza, and Hezbollah has fired more than 5,000 rockets and drones from Lebanon, causing a general shut-down of most public institutions and a massive evacuation of population, leading to 200,000 internally displaced citizens.

Together with the massive emergency recruitment of reserve forces, many of whom are students, Israeli universities could not open the academic year and researchers could not engage in research for months. The academic year eventually opened only at the beginning of 2024 and the academic calendar was severely disrupted, as all faculty and students were required to adapt teaching and learning to a shortened and altered semester format. Students and faculty were forced to leave their homes. Students and faculty lost family members: siblings, parents, children. Students were heavily injured and forced to stop their studies. No one’s life or work has returned to normal. The grave weight of the war continues to take its unbearable toll and upend all areas of life, including academic life.

We deeply mourn the loss of all innocent life in this horrific conflict, whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, or citizens of other countries. We are pained to see the tragedy that occurs on both sides of the Gaza border. Our answer to the horrors of war should never be to end academic collaborations and cut ties among researchers. Israeli scientists are not responsible for the war, they are its victims. Furthermore, they are among the leading voices who can help to elucidate the situation, find solutions, and challenge conceptions and orthodoxies that led the region to this crisis. Rather than cutting ties, it is imperative to reinforce academic collaborations to ensure that we live up to our shared aspirations to improve the human condition, expand knowledge, and uncover the truth.

For more on this topic, click here or on the ‘Read on Substack‘ link below to hear a podcast interview with Hebrew University Prof. Netta Barak-Corren.

An international boycott of Israeli professors and universities is spreading, even in the US—but Israel is fighting back by Daniel Gordis

We speak, once again, with Professor Netta Barak-Corren, who has now been asked by Hebrew University to lead their fight.

Read on Substack